A British Expat Speaks: Five Life Lessons I’ve Learned From Americans

Americans are always looking at the Big Sky. (Photo: AP/The Denver Post, Helen H. Richardson)

Americans are always looking at the Big Sky. (Photo: AP/The Denver Post, Helen H. Richardson)

While my British accent hasn’t changed that much, there are definitely things I’ve picked up over the years from my fellow Americans (including saying “learned” instead of “learnt”).

The sky’s the limit
While I still have some residual British “Yes, but…” and “What if….?” in me, the new me is much more likely to go for it. In every aspect of American life you have people who have made it against all odds.

Take Bill Clinton for example; he was born in Arkansas, one of the poorest states. His father died three months before he was born; his grandparents raised him while his mother trained as a nurse. His stepfather was an abusive gambler and alcoholic, and Clinton regularly had to protect his mother and younger brother against him. Still he made it to college, scored a Rhodes scholarship to Oxford and obtained a Law degree from Yale before moving on to bigger things.

On a more modest scale, I was over 40 when I switched to a writing career, snagged a major publisher and appeared on radio and TV. Would that have happened in the U.K.? Probably not.

They can only say “no”
Cousin of the first point. I probably hear this as often as you hear “Ah yes, but..” in the U.K. The American viewpoint is a) if you don’t ask, you don’t get, and b) what’s the worst that can happen?

With my new book for example, I approached several prominent education journalists for reviews. While most of them didn’t even respond, a handful not only reviewed the book (positively) but agreed to give me quotes (blurbs) that are now on the cover. The worst that could have happened? No one responded. I had nothing to lose really.

Decline without detail
Americans are great at declining invitations without guilt. Unlike Brits, who tend to give tortuous details, Americans simply say “I’m sorry, we have other plans”, or just “I’m sorry but thanks for including us.” Most of the time, people just want to know if they have to feed you. 

A note to Brits who insist on full disclosure when declining an invitation: Americans, being helpful, friendly folk, will figure out how you can attend their soirée and the other event that you claim is causing a conflict. “We won’t be able to come because we have to be at a school meeting/church event/bar mitzvah at the same time” is inevitably met with “Oh that’s no problem, the Butchers and the Bakers have that same issue. They’re just coming along later.”

So if you simply don’t want to go to the event, don’t fabricate an excuse. You might find yourself in a bit of a corner.

Voicing discontent
OK, so I also have some of that British dislike of making a fuss and complaining about things, but I’m learning. Not being a big rare meat eater, I always ask for my meat to be cooked medium to well done. (I know, such a Philistine.) Sometimes it still comes out pink or red, which I simply can’t eat. I will politely ask for it to be cooked a little more, which apparently can be very insulting to chefs. A few times said chef has basically charred it, which is equally unacceptable to me – and I’m not paying for it. If I have the time, I’ll wait for a new piece of meat but if my fellow diners are almost done, I will forgo it and tell the restaurant to deduct the meal off the bill. I can imagine the scene if I did this in the U.K.: I’d be “making a fuss” or, worse, behaving “like an American.”

Not wrong, just different
This is more of a “what I’ve learned from living in the U.S.,” but the point is, just because it’s British doesn’t make it right, and it’s not wrong just because it’s American. I’m talking about language, spelling and customs.

As I said in a previous post, just because it’s bad manners in the U.K. to use only a fork to eat, that’s not the case here. So, they mix up the “e” and “r” in words like theater? Before Dr. Johnson’s First Dictionary in 1755, so did many Brits.

Oh and if I met this guy while out in my car, I would be the first to join in. Don’t see this much on the M25 do you?

Join @MindTheGap_BBCA on Twitter today (October 30) at 2 pm ET for an open forum for Brits in America. Tweet your questions using hashtag #MindTheChat.

See more:
Conversations Overheard in America
Six Things This Brit Doesn’t Miss About the UK
Relax, Brits: It’s OK to Make a Fuss in the U.S.

  • Starle

    That clip! Totally made my day! No, you wouldn’t see this on the M5! However, if you get a few pints into a group of Brtis OMG they love a sing-song! I have never seen so many grown-up people siging ancient pirate songs in my life.

    • Dixiebrit

      Starle, don’t forget the last night of the Proms. Oh, HOW I miss it! And I am the American ex-pat who married a Brit and lived there nearly a decade before we came back to the USA. Both places have their negatives and positives. I missed my mountains, mainly, and family.

      • Starle

        I watched last night of the Proms for the first time this year. I think my Brit husband cried while singing! I just kept asking; What Is This? What is happening? Why do we do this? I NEED CONTEXT! (I do not yet understand the Proms, obviously)

  • Frankie Herron

    Great article!

  • IotaM

    Heartily agree with all these.

  • PJ

    It’s bad manners to eat with only a fork in the UK? What do you do if you’re eating bite sized food that doesn’t require a knife? Is it bad manners to eat a rice dish or mac and cheese? I need that one explained to me.

    • Brit abroad

      In America you tend to use a fork as a shovel for something such as a rice dish. In the UK we always hold it the other around, tines pointing down, and the knife is used to cut any bigger pieces (veg, meat etc) and also to push the other food onto the back side of the fork.
      If I was being “lazy” and eating takeout with my boyfriend in front of the TV, say, I might go one-handed and use only a fork (still in my non-dominant left hand though, because that is always the hand for the fork) but I would never eat that way in a restaurant or at the dinner table in front of family or friends.

      • Mrs Baum

        I’m British but regularly eat the American way with just a fork – so much easier.
        If I’m eating steak or something, I’ll do the British knife and fork thing, but if it’s curry, say, then using just a fork makes much more sense.

        I don’t care if anyone thinks it’s rude – they need to loosen up! And as for eating peas, shovel all the way! Anything else is just daft.

        • ChildDevTeacher

          I’m American but still…that’s one less piece of cutlery to wash. My mother-in-law (a strict Emily Post generation girl) ALWAYS sets the table with everything: knife, fork, spoon. No matter what we’re having or what we need. Now granted we may not use some of those, but I don’t even see the point of taking them from the drawer if the meal doesn’t require it. Just my humble opinion.

  • MontanaRed

    After reading a lot of posts and comments about the difference between service in the UK and the US, and being reminded of that with Toni’s “Voicing discontent” content (ha), this American, who is stuck with Celiac Disease and cannot eat or drink gluten-containing foodstuffs, would like to say (in a very long sentence with lots of punctuation) that she was treated beautifully in the Oxfordshire and London restaurants and pubs she visited. There was never any difficulty— The waitstaff were without exception friendly, helpful, and accommodating.

    Just saying.

  • jonasv

    A few years ago I voiced that I was thinking about going to law school, my in-laws all said I should be happy for what I have, and my family back home cheered me on. Funny how our experiences differ. I think the writer have spent more time with upper-middleclass Americans than I have. But what do I know.

  • DutchS

    It’s a big planet. It would be boring if we all did things the same way.

  • IrishChapCraic

    I’m from the U.K. but that video made me want to move to America!

  • Gemma

    You would never see this back home in Britain, Americans are my favourite.